All-stars, no stars - just let fans vote

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Naturally, when the All-Star ballots are all counted, there will be some undeserving winners. Sandy Alomar Jr., for instance, has been hurt most of the year, and he's been the front-runner to be the starting catcher in the American League.

Wade Boggs is having something less than an all-star season and he'll probably be an All-Star.

But so what? The fans are the driving force behind this game, behind baseball. The only reason why Oakland first baseman Mark McGwire can earn more than $5 million a year is because of the fans, and if they prefer to watch Frank Thomas play, well, then that's just the way it has to be. No whining allowed, this year especially, in the wake of the strike.

Here is one fan's all-star ballot:

American League

* First base: Mo Vaughn, Boston. McGwire's got better numbers overall, but Vaughn has been the one consistent run producer for a Red Sox lineup that has been battered by injuries. But McGwire and Thomas should be invited to participate in the home run derby.

* Second base: Carlos Baerga, Cleveland. Roberto Alomar is the better player, no question, a sure Hall of Famer if he stays healthy. But he seems somewhat uninterested at times, and this is Cleveland's year. Baerga is Cleveland's No. 3 hitter and an underrated second baseman.

* Third base: Gary Gaetti, Kansas City. You could pick him for his production alone, but he should go because he's persevered. Cleveland's Jim Thome will probably have a better year and is the better player, but Gaetti deserves some credit.

* Shortstop: Cal Ripken, Orioles. California's Gary DiSarcina is having a better year, and may even be a better player at this point. But Ripken would be a close second, and this is his year. He deserves all the votes, and he should be there.

* Outfield: Kenny Lofton, Cleveland. Best center fielder, best leadoff hitter, one of the best players in the American League. He's not having as good a season as he did last year, but he's still an impact player.

Albert Belle, Cleveland. He's kind of a funny hitter, because although he doesn't really have a quick bat, he hits the ball extraordinarily hard. A feared hitter.

Tim Salmon, California. His numbers speak for themselves.

Possible reserves include the Angels' Tony Phillips and Jim Edmonds, Seattle's Jay Buhner, and Cleveland's Manny Ramirez.

* Catcher: Ivan Rodriguez, Texas. Some of his teammates don't like him and he's not a great catcher, but he's the best combination of hitting and defense in the league.

* Designated hitter: Edgar Martinez, Seattle. But if the Angels' Chili Davis was healthy, Martinez might sit.

* Others (personal favorites): Boston's Tim Naehring, Milwaukee's Kevin Seitzer, and Minnesota's Kirby Puckett.

* Pitchers: Kevin Appier of the Royals, Seattle's Randy Johnson, Boston's Tim Wakefield and Erik Hanson, Detroit's David Wells, Cleveland's Jose Mesa and Dennis Martinez, California's Lee Smith, and Oakland right-hander Steve Ontiveros.

?3 Can Buck Showalter count as the Yankees' entry?

National League

* First base: Mark Grace, Cubs. Looked like Grace was fading, but he's had a great year. Jeff Bagwell has had a poor year, but because he couldn't finish what he started last year, it would still be great if he was invited.

* Second base: Carlos Garcia, Pirates. Very underrated player. Houston's Craig Biggio is the backup.

* Third base: Ken Caminiti, San Diego. Best throwing arm of any infielder in baseball, and he plays extraordinarily hard. Since Matt Williams can't be there, we'd opt also for the surprising Vinny Castilla of the Colorado Rockies.

* Shortstop: Barry Larkin, Cincinnati. Classy player, the best. And you'd have to choose between a couple of former busts -- Shawon Dunston or Jose Offerman -- as the backup.

* Outfield: Reggie Sanders, Cincinnati. Just check the stats.

Sammy Sosa, Cubs. One of the great all-around players in the game right now. Can hit, run, throw, everything.

Tony Gwynn, San Diego. He's back in his rightful place at the top of the NL batting race. The backups are plentiful, with Ron Gant of Cincinnati, Houston's Derek Bell, and the Dodgers' Raul Mondesi (the only reason why he isn't picked as a starter is because when Mike Piazza was hurt, when the Dodgers really needed him, he struggled).

* Catcher: Piazza. Let him catch nine innings, but don't bother asking him to participate in the homer contest.

* Designated hitter: How about Colorado's Dante Bichette? Or the Giants' Barry Bonds, who wouldn't have to worry about bothering with fly balls.

* Others (personal favorites): Cubs center fielder Brian McRae, and Atlanta first baseman Fred McGriff.

* Pitchers: Greg Maddux, Atlanta, Hideo Nomo and Ismael Valdes of the Dodgers, Denny Neagle of Pittsburgh, San Diego's Joey Hamilton, Philadelphia's Heathcliff Slocumb, Randy Myers of Chicago, and Tom Henke of St. Louis. Over the next four weeks you will hear about dozens of high-profile players on the trading block, from Bret Saberhagen to David Cone to Roberto Alomar. Unless the Orioles get back within a half-dozen games of first, there's really no point in making a deal.

But suppose they do make a run, crawl to within four or five games of the Red Sox, and Toronto offers Alomar. What then?

It would take a good, solid prospect to make a deal for Alomar or Cone. Alex Ochoa, or Jimmy Haynes.

Or Armando Benitez.

A year ago, Benitez was virtually untouchable. A young, developing pitcher who might have the best arm in baseball. But in the last year, Benitez has shown early signs of being erratic emotionally on the mound. He's packed up his gear and threatened to quit twice, he's nearly started a bench-clearing brawl when he threw at Seattle's Tino Martinez, and he refused to go along with a team gag in Milwaukee this week.

Orioles executives must pause and ask themselves whether Benitez is simply just another 22-year-old doing things that 22-year-olds do, or if his anger will continue to be a problem and prevent him from being a big-time pitcher.

If they think his talent won't translate, then they should trade him now, because his value is extraordinary, and they can get an extraordinary player for him -- like Alomar.

Says here they should keep Benitez. He's a young guy who's still learning about stuff besides pitching. A writer requested Athletics manager Tony La Russa to ask outfielder Ruben Sierra something this week, because Sierra isn't talking to the media.

"I think I'm in the same category," said La Russa, whose only communication with Sierra might be the signs he flashes.

Tom Brown, the pitching coach of Triple-A Oklahoma City, will pitch during the home run hitting contest the day before the All-Star Game. This is big new: Brown threw during the 1993 contest in Camden Yards, when Juan Gonzalez and Ken Griffey Jr., hit memorable homers. . . . Former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog has been free and easy with his criticism of the organization this year. "I don't think it was very fair to fire Joe Torre the way they did," Herzog said. "He didn't have the starting pitching. They signed a free-agent pitcher [Danny Jackson] and he didn't have a win in nine games. That's not the manager's fault. Overall, the club looks dead. You take your 3-4-5 guys out of the lineup [Gregg Jefferies, Todd Zeile, Mark Whiten] and that puts an awful burden on [Brian] Jordan and [Ray] Lankford. Who the hell is going to drive in runs?" . . . This is how bad the Kansas City lineup is these days: On Monday, Royals manager Bob Boone pinch-hit for his No. 3 hitter twice.

Hit me . . . please

Atlanta shortstop Jeff Blauser is hitting just over .200, and he's been hit by six pitches this year. "If someone wants to hit me," Blauser said, "he's doing me a favor."

Out of the ashes of what is the Mets organization, there is something very good on the rise. Good young pitching. Bill Pulsipher and Bobby Jones at the major-league level, Jason Isringhausen at Triple-A, Paul Wilson at Double-A. Kind of reminds you of Gooden, Darling, and that Mets rotation of 1986-88. . . . Reliever Rick Aguilera, the subject of trade rumors, would like to sign a contract extension and stay in Minnesota, but the Twins aren't interested. . . . If the Orioles do attempt to trade for Cone or Alomar, they should ask for permission to negotiate a contract extension before pulling the trigger on a deal, because both Cone and Alomar are free agents after this season. It would be a tremendous loss to deal a top prospect and then have Cone or Alomar walk away after this season.

Memory lapse

Ex-Oriole Brad Pennington may have reached the peak of absurdity this week. The Cincinnati lefty was quoted as saying that while he didn't want to rip any of his former coaches in Baltimore, they never talked to him about correcting flaws in his delivery. In fact, manager Phil Regan and pitching coach Mike Flanagan worked on his delivery all spring, and Pennington praised them for their attention.

Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn knows pitching. On Wednesday, he studied tapes of Dodgers rookie Hideo Nomo and gave a prediction for Thursday night's game in Colorado. "Nomo is going to strike out 13 -- no, make that 14 -- against the Rockies," Gwynn said. "The guy is unhitable right now. I've looked at a lot of videotape on this guy, from a lot of different camera angles, and that split-fingered pitch is unbelievable. I mean, it's impossible to tell whether it's a forkball or a [fastball] until that sucker drops a foot. And it doesn't drop until the end." . . . Giants third baseman Matt Williams, out with a broken foot, says he'll be back by mid-July. San Francisco manager Dusty Baker hopes he'll be back by Aug. 1. . . . Cincinnati ace Jose Rijo has a bone spur sticking into a ligament in his elbow, and the Reds are hoping he'll hold together until after the season, when he'll have the spur removed. . . . Some executives are saying privately they don't want to deal with clients of agent Scott Boras this winter, because salaries are going to be rolled back and Boras doesn't easily roll. Orioles starting pitchers Kevin Brown and Ben McDonald are both represented by Boras.

Warning: Labor stuff

Union leader Don Fehr went just short this week of predicting the players won't strike anytime in the near future, and that the owners aren't interested in a lockout.

"The attitude that I detect," he said, "although it is slow in building, seems much more oriented toward problem-solving than it is toward confrontation, and I hope that persists."

NB The NBA lockout may help baseball, moving the labor spotlight.

The numbers game

* For all those who think Los Angeles rookie Hideo Nomo (6-1) is a flash in the pan, someone who will get hit his second time around the league: All six of his victories came the second time he pitched against a team.

* Kansas City's Kevin Appier, the odds-on favorite to start the All-Star Game for the AL, is 0-2 with a 7.43 ERA against the Cleveland Indians, and 11-1 with a 1.78 ERA against everybody else.

* Now that Eddie Murray has reached 3,000 career hits, it should be noted that among his teammates, only Dave Winfield and Tony Pena have 3,000 career at-bats.

* The Minnesota Twins have started eight different players at first in this first season after Kent Hrbek's retirement.

* Through Friday's game, Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza was hitting .471 with runners in scoring position and two outs.

* When Barry Bonds stole the 322nd base of his career Wednesday, he and his father, Bobby, surpassed Maury and Bump Wills for most steals by a father-son combination. Barry and Bobby have 783, Maury and Bump 782. Of course, the Hendersons (Rickey) have more than any father-son combination.

* In the past week, seven teams have set season highs in attendance.

* In Seattle Tuesday, Oakland first baseman Mark McGwire popped for the cycle, popping out to short, second, third and first in his first four at-bats.

* Cleveland is 6-0 against Kansas City, and has outscored the Royals 33-7 in doing so. So much for a race in the AL Central. As the All-Star break nears and the contenders and pretenders are being defined, trade talks are heating up. The latest on:

Rick Aguilera, Twins: The Red Sox want him, but Minnesota GM Terry Ryan reportedly is asking for three prospects in return. In these financially sensitive times, when taking on salary means more than it used to, this might be time for Ryan to get a reality check.

Kevin Tapani, Twins: Ditto. The Reds and the Orioles among the teams who've called.

David Wells, Tigers: Yankees seem close to dealing a package (third baseman Russ Davis, others) for the left-hander, who said this week he'll take no guff from anyone -- George Steinbrenner included.

David Cone, Blue Jays: Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers and Angels in the bidding. But the Orioles could be the front-runners if they choose to part with Armando Benitez.

Joe Carter, Blue Jays: Padres need a slugging first baseman to drive in runs between Tony Gwynn and Ken Caminiti. Carter , moving from the outfield, is perfect, and the Padres have the pitching prospects to get a deal done.

John Olerud, Blue Jays: Nobody wants him. Word is his bat is too slow.

Greg Swindell, Astros: Big contract, but did anyone notice that shutout the other day? If Steinbrenner is desperate enough, maybe the Yankees would take him. Seattle Mariners center fielder Ken Griffey, on the field for the first time Tuesday since breaking his wrist against the Orioles May 26, was fielding grounders and laughing. Somebody joked about Griffey forgetting the team since his injury, and he defended himself in this way: "You want me to be with my team and I understand," he said. "But only one of my teammates came to the hospital to see me, and only one person from the front office." The teammate was Jay Buhner, who turned down an offer from the Orioles and re-signed with the Mariners only after Griffey spoke out on his behalf. Griffey wants to return to action by Aug. 15.

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